The enormity of the tragedy of World War I was that so many millions of people’s lives were utterly destroyed by the autocratic inertia of regimes in Germany, Austria and Russia. The architects of the Schlieffen Plan understood that victory in 1914 would require complete mobilization of population and industry and complete destruction of the Allies military capacity to resist. That the foreseeable human cost of this endeavor, even on the short war scenario envisioned by some at the outset, was ever considered acceptable is a testament to the worst consequences of power: in 1914, leaders with absolute power, insulated from the reality of human suffering, utterly failed to exercise the most basic moral judgment. Nor were the leaders of France and Britain without blame: pathological nationalism and naïve refusal to consider alternative solutions likely increased the magnitude and duration of the conflict. Leaders on both sides used the psychological and physical power of the state to compel mass participation in the tragedy. Tuchman outlines the enormity of the evil wrought in 1914, articulates the hollow nationalistic rationales for the fateful decisions that enabled this evil, and evokes with terrifying power the sense that too much power concentrated in the hands of all-too-fallible leaders created a destructive momentum no one could stop.
In one sense, people in the autocracies embroiled in the war at its outset suffered because their only recourse to change the power of the state was revolution. If you disobeyed the Kaiser or the Czar or the Emperor, you could expect to be punished severely. Information for the masses was still delivered mostly in newspapers, and was susceptible to manipulation behind the barriers of borders, language, privilege and ignorance. The masses marched blindly into industrial-age warfare, obedient to the only authority accessible to them and trusting that the path to security was to act in concert with their fellow subjects.
On the other hand, citizens of France and Britain also suffered from the tyranny of misinformation and ignorance. The French, eager to avenge the humiliation of the Franco-Prussian War, clung to an unrealistic view of German intentions and their own capabilities. The British were curiously muddled, with successive governments allowing detailed military planning with France to presume an alliance in the event of war, while the Cabinets hid behind vaguely worded agreements and clung to the illusion that Britain was under no real commitment to fight in the event war broke out between Germany and France.
With the exception of the pacifist members in the British government, both sides seemed to accept the war between Germany and France as a future certainty in the decade before the fateful summer of 1914. Perhaps, given the ambitions of the Kaiser and the near-religious conviction that Germany’s destiny was to conquer and rule, war at some level was indeed unavoidable. But the historical fact is that the First World War was triggered, not by direct provocation between Germany and France, but rather by the almost-unrelated assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Emperor. And it is hard to see how that event, even with the cumbersome alliances in place at the time, could not have been addressed with diplomacy rather than force had there been the will to preserve the peace. Instead, some seized upon it as a trigger, others watched in helpless horror, but most marched willfully into an abyss they could neither imagine nor avoid. One completes a reading of Tuchman’s masterpiece with a fearful appreciation for the power of our preconceptions and the social structures we allow to grow around us.